I have often wondered whether it was possible for a Muslim, especially a woman wearing a veil, to be heard with public appreciation in the U.S. in this time of high Islamophobia.
I got the answer on Sept. 25 at American University in Washington, D.C. That evening, I was part of an audience of some 2,000 students and faculty packed into a large sports arena to witness Malala Yousafzai receive the annual Wonk of the Year award presented by AU President Sylvia Burwell, an award given to President Bill Clinton and former first lady Laura Bush. President Burwell described how Malala has lit a candle of knowledge for women around the globe and embodies courage and bravery in her humanitarian work.
The audience gave Malala a rapturous welcome, frequently erupting into prolonged applause. Speaking without notes, Malala established an easy-going relationship with the audience at the outset in the way she described the “firsts” in the award ― “first foreigner... first Pakistani... first Muslim...first Pashtun.” With impeccable timing she added, “I’m also the youngest one to receive it. And I’m also the shortest one to receive it.”
Malala talked of her goals in promoting women’s education around the world, particularly in regions where women’s education has long seemed taboo. She described the work of the Malala Fund, which seeks to empower local leaders to push for equal education in their communities, support women facing long odds in pursuing their education, and lobby governments to put forth resources so that more women around the globe can go to school.
She recounted the time from her childhood under the Taliban when women’s education was banned in Swat: “I realized that when my education is banned, I would not be able to follow my dreams—to become a doctor, to become a teacher, to be myself.”
To thunderous applause she said, “The terrorists had actually made a big mistake. They had made a big mistake because, first, I used to think about getting attacked or being harmed. But I had gone through this already, and now I knew that nothing can stop me.”
She urged men to, “Think about your daughters. Think about your sisters. Think about your mothers. And allow them space, give them opportunity.” Malala took special care to honor her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, asking for him to rise from the audience so he could be applauded for his vital work and support for Malala and women’s education in Swat and beyond. She remarked, “I got the opportunity to be here because of my father—because he allowed me to speak. There’s nothing special in my story, but only that no one stopped me. So, girls can do anything.”
Malala spoke extensively about her views on Islam, which she considered a religion of peace, kindness, and forgiveness. She also discussed the importance of understanding how the Prophet of Islam, taking care to add “peace be upon him,” empowered the women around him and demonstrated how Islam really does strive for gender equality: “We need to ... unite and say that those people who are misusing the name of Islam, they are not us. We do not stand with them.”
After every question, each posed by AU students, Malala would acknowledge the student by name, gracefully thank them, and respond with her trademark wisdom beyond her years and incorporate the stories of young women she has met around the world fighting for their education.
At the end she shared the story of her younger brother who enjoyed “annoying” her. Now contemplating her move to Oxford University, he asks, “‘Who am I going to annoy, and who am I going to tease?’ And now he’s telling me that after two years, he’s going to apply to Oxford. And that is shocking. I just do not want that. I might send him to American University.” The audience roared with laughter.
Malala transcends the divide between Islam and the West because she reminds both of their common humanity. Patrick Burnett, who accompanied me to the program, remarked that, “People adore her. She is the best ambassador any country or faith could ever ask for. She is simply amazing.” My friend, retired Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, replied when I sent a picture of myself alongside Malala and Ziauddin, “I am jealous. She is a special lady.”
Malala today is no longer just a celebrity; she is a movement inspiring millions from London to Lagos. No other Pakistani has that star power. Yet many Pakistanis launched a hate-filled rumor campaign against her even suggesting that her father stage-managed the attack so as to defame Islam and Pakistan and get fame and wealth in the West.
Nevertheless the hearts of the family are in Pakistan and they speak of Swat often and with pride. When I told Ziauddin of my intention of writing this piece, he responded, “That will be so kind of you. There is a big gap between Malala and her countrymen. They don’t understand her simple message or even don’t try to do so. They can’t see her compassionate heart and sublime soul. She has an immense love for her people. She literally doesn’t want anything for herself. All she wants is for them and especially for the women and girls of her country. I hope love, respect and peace will prevail in our land.”